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Otter hunting makes earrings for Aleut artist

February 2, 2019
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In this Jan. 24, 2019, photo, Alaska Native artist Carley Thayer in Juneau, Alaska, wears a pair of earrings she made from a sea otter. Alaska Natives are allowed to harvest sea otters for subsistence purposes or the creation and sale of handicraft and harvesting. (Ben Hohenstatt/Capital City Weekly via AP)

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — Carley Thayer’s work is connected to both distant and immediate relatives.

Thayer makes earrings and accessories from harvested sea otter fur and pays homage to her Aleut forefathers under the banner of Bering Sea Designs.

“I’m from the Aleutian Islands originally,” Thayer said. “Just the first two years of my life, but my dad grew up there, and that’s where my ancestors are from, and they were huge sea otter hunters, and that’s kind of what inspired the name.”

Thayer and her family, now of Juneau, are sea otter hunters, too.

Alaska Natives are allowed to harvest sea otters for subsistence purposes or the creation and sale of handicraft and harvesting. Otherwise, it would be prevented by the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act.

In May, a group effort replenished Thayer’s fur supply. She and her family harvested eight otters near Hoonah, about 40 miles southwest of Juneau.

Otters have been hunted by the Aluets for their food and their pelt for generations. Thayer said in her case the otters are primarily harvested for the fur although the meat is occasionally eaten.

“It was a family hunting trip,” Thayer said. “I got to see my (13-year-old) brother get his first kill, which was cool.”

Thayer said she harvested two or three otters herself.

“The family hunts have not been a very frequent thing, however, that may change now that I am working with them,” Thayer said.

That fur should last for a while. While she did not have an exact figure ready, Thayer estimated “a few hundred” earrings could be produced from a single otter.

“Everything I’ve done so far has primarily been from one sea otter,” Thayer said.

That otter was harvested by her father about a decade ago, and its fur had been waiting for a use.

“You get to produce a lot from one otter,” Thayer said.

So far, Thayer said public reaction to her otter fur earrings has been positive.

“It’s surprising,” Thayer said. “I was expecting a little bit more negative comments because they’re such cute animals.”

However, in Southeast Alaska, fur and skin sewing are fairly well-known Alaska Native art forms with workshops offered in the area. Plus, not everyone is smitten by sea otters.

The otters are prodigious eaters, and a resurgent population has made them a nuisance animal in the eyes of some Alaskan fisherman.

In past summers, Thayer has fished commercially with her father, and she said that’s definitely colored her perception of the largest member of the weasel family.

It means the relative cuteness of the otters doesn’t particularly trouble Thayer when one is harvested for her business.

“Not really,” she said. “I am who I am.”

Parental push and Public Market

Thayer’s business received doses of inspiration from her parents.

“My dad, maybe 15 years ago, bought a skin sewing machine with the intention of maybe doing something with sea otters because it’s absolutely beautiful fur,” Thayer said.

A skin sewing machine is a hefty sort of a sewing machine that can work with animal hides.

“I was kind of in between jobs, and so I just started fiddling around with it and decided I absolutely loved it,” Thayer said.

While the machine is not used in the creation of Thayer’s earrings, she said its presence did inspire her creations.

“I don’t even remember the first pair of earrings I made, it just kind of happened,” Thayer said. “My mom, she wore the earrings and said, ‘What are those? I want those.’ She was definitely my cheerleader.”

Now, Thayer said she likes to make batches of about 20 earrings at a time. Each batch takes about a week of “pretty meticulous” work.

Each earring requires cutting metal, cutting fur and securing the fur with glue and jump rings.

“It’s better to be more secure,” Thayer said. “I make everything. I make the ear wires, I make the jump rings.”

Thayer’s first public showing of her wares was December’s Public Market, a citywide arts and crafts Christmas market.

During Public Market the earrings came to the attention of artist and Kindred Post owner Christy NaMee Eriksen. Kindred Post, which is a store, post office and gift shop in downtown Juneau, now carries Thayer’s earrings.

“Carley’s work immediately caught my eye as a fresh twist on a traditional material,” Eriksen said. “She keeps the integrity of the fur while playing on new shapes — I love how it looks both playful and elegant.”

Veronica Buness, Kindred Post media specialist, said she had not previously seen similar items around Juneau.

People can’t keep their hands off of them.

“One of the things to do is pull them out of the case on the wall and let people feel how incredibly soft they are,” Buness said. “It’s kind of unfathomable if you haven’t felt it before.”

Got its hooks in

Thayer said Bering Sea Designs has become a big focus for her and her main source of income.

It’s going to stay that way, too.

In the past, Thayer has fished with her father during summers, but this year is different because Thayer is pregnant.

That’s part of what led her to trying her hand at making earrings.

“I needed to find something to do to fill my time and make some extra money,” Thayer said.

Currently, earrings are Thayer’s focus, but online bracelets, necklaces and fur poms are available, and she may expand to other accessories in the future.

While her business is young, Thayer said the plan is for it to have staying power.

Once her child is born, Thayer said the business will be a good way to be home and generating income.

“This is a long-term thing,” Thayer said. “That’s kind of the idea. I’ll be able to be at home and continue my business.”

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In this Jan. 24, 2019, photo, Alaska Native artist Carley Thayer in Juneau, Alaska, wears a pair of earrings she made from a sea otter. Alaska Natives are allowed to harvest sea otters for subsistence purposes or the creation and sale of handicraft and harvesting. (Ben Hohenstatt/Capital City Weekly via AP)